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Shabana Azmi And The Moderate Muslim Agenda

By Farzana Versey

26 August, 2008

Shabana Azmi believes the moderate Muslim voice is never heard. Ever since she spoke out about not being able to get a flat in Mumbai, she has been in the news. A simple Google search on Shabana Azmi’s apartment problem gave 6350 results. Looking for ‘Delhi’s Imam Bukhari on jihad’ threw up only 3010 results. A rather telling statement.

Azmi and the Imam belong to the same club in many ways. They both become Muslims when it suits their purpose. The only difference is that the Imam has a little bump on his forehead and Ms. Azmi wears a bindi often. That, we are to understand, makes her stand out as a secular person. How an embellishment can qualify you for this position beats me.

Recently, Shabana Azmi has been consecrated as a Muslim messiah. The reason? She said she could not buy an apartment in Mumbai. “I mean if Javed Akhtar and Shabana Azmi cannot get a flat in Mumbai because they are Muslims, then what are we talking about?”

We are talking about how superficial she makes these concerns sound. This is as bad as Sharukh Khan saying that his success is evidence of how secular India is. Shabana Azmi has complained, “You can't only make token gestures and actually let them be in the state that they are as the Rajinder Sachar Committee report shows. So what happened is token gestures are made but real issues are never addressed."

This makes one wonder at her sense of timing. The Sachar Report is old hat; Muslims being denied accommodation is old hat and I have written about the issue in Countercurrents. Seema Mustafa reported in The Asian Age about how Muslims travelling abroad were being probed. Both these were in 2006. Ms. Azmi was silent then.

Today, if you are looking for some power, the time is just right. Omar Abdullah’s three-minute bluster has paved the way for the moderate Muslim to flash it like never before. The reason is that Kashmir has become the hotbed of renewed strife. Indian democracy is fighting its biggest internal battle. This time the enemy is not Pakistan. A whole state is in rebellion, and it is the people, not the extremists.

Kashmir has become a Muslim problem.

Every political party will now try to woo the Muslim; no one can afford to lose votes. In fact, following the bomb blasts in Ahmedabad, and those red herrings in Surat, we hardly have any anti-Muslim sentiment among the major political parties. Therefore, if you say the right things, claim your Muslim identity, are fairly well-known, then you will be offered quite a bit on a platter.

When asked about the Kashmir violence and its fallout in the rest of the country, Azmi said, "That's why I am so distressed over what is happening in Kashmir. For heaven's sake it should be brought to a stop and it should have been brought to a stop right when they started that nonsense."

Does this sound like a responsible statement with any degree of understanding of what this “nonsense” is? Has she bothered to explain? Has anyone asked her to? It is important to know what she means by nonsense. That the Amarnath land was given or that it was taken back? Or whether the trucks should have made their way to Muzaffarabad? Or whether there should be protests in Jammu or the Valley?

How can anyone dismiss an important rebellion in a state as nonsense and yet get a whole lot of media mileage because she is denied a new house?

And what has this cribbing about accommodation done? The Times of India, in one of its now patently naïve moments, decided to ask its reporters to pose as Muslims (an interesting thought – could they not send real Muslim reporters, were they not trustworthy enough?) and call up builders. Most of them sounded “enthusiastic” and said religion was no issue.

Shabana Azmi has made a real problem that afflicts lesser people into a joke. What did the Times expect? After all this noise, would the builders outright refuse? In any event, they do not do so directly. The process is subtle. It might have helped if they had done a sting operation with Shabana Azmi as a participant. Then we would know what is really going on.

Would Ms Azmi be game for it? No. She would repeat those precious words, "I think there is not enough understanding of the fact that in a democracy how you treat the security of the minority must be a very important part for the success of a democracy.”

Do note the careful usage of the term democracy. She is not rubbishing the government. Why? Because one never knows who comes to power and who offers the Rajya Sabha seat.

That she emphasised her celebrity status points clearly to the fact that had she got the flat then she would never have spoken out. And rather smartly she has also made the Muslim leadership answerable. "I don't think that the Muslim leadership has bothered to clear the air about what Islam actually is."

Why should it? If this is a democracy, and she has agreed it is, then there is no reason for any religion to be explained. The Muslim leadership can explain Islam to its believers who have questions. Did she ask the Hindu leadership to explain Hinduism after the Bombay and Gujarat riots? Why does a secular country need lessons in religion? If she is so concerned, then why does she not start quoting para and verse and flaunt herself as a part of some Muslim leadership?

Has she ever hit out at those who constantly ask about reform movements in Islam? Have we got a list of reform movements in Hinduism? Why do we have to feel defensive about being westernised or secular? Who cares if someone from another belief system has to wait for years for the so-called reform in Islam when there are dozens of interpretations already in existence?

It has become a bait. When there was a discussion on the veil a couple of years ago, Ms. Azmi made bombastic statements and said that if someone asked her to wear a veil here she would never do so, but if Jack Straw asked her not to wear a veil in England, then she would wear three veils. This is sheer playing to the gallery. I have yet to hear of such a simplistic analysis.

For this she is being lauded as someone who challenges the clergy. Asking Imam Bukhari to go to Kandahar to fight there and solve the problems only because he had said at the time that it was every Muslim’s jihad is mere intellectual titillation. In a democracy he has as much of a right to say what he wishes. Has he asked her to house the slum-dwellers whose cause she espouses?

For liberals, as for maulvis, every group they claim to represent is just a potential constituency -- political, social or religious.

Javed Akhtar came on a TV show and talked about how he went to Behrampada post-riots, after the Shahi Imam had issued a fatwa to boycott the Republic Day function, and got 9000 signatures of Muslims saying they were not with the Imam. His grouse was that no newspaper carried this path-breaking piece of news; they only like sensational pronouncements by the fanatics, he felt.

It did not strike him that it was most insensitive to go around collecting signatures from a suffering people (Behrampada was among the worst-affected areas) only to suit their narrow agenda. What did they expect? That people would refuse?

Besides, what does boycotting Republic Day celebrations mean anyway? How many people ‘celebrate’ it? Would beleaguered widows, homes without any earning member left, hoist the tricolour only to prove that they could be called moderate Muslims? For the record, the majority of Muslim women in these slums do not wear burqas, the men do not have the time or space to offer their namaaz regularly and many do not even know what the shariat is and perhaps not even what a jihad is. And many more people there will recognise Shabana Azmi rather than a Syed Shahabuddin or Salahuddin Owaisi, who are the ‘ugly face’ of Islam.

I don’t think Indian Muslims are looking for someone to represent their case. It is the others who are constantly on the lookout for the right sound-bytes.

Did Ms. Azmi protest against the media exploitation of Gudiya and Zahira Sheikh? Did she raise her voice against the displacement of Muslim villagers in West Bengal? When she addressed the House of Commons on being awarded the Gandhi Foundation’s International Peace Prize in 2006, she “dwelt on one of the most troubled issues of our times—the unthinking manner in which Islam and terror are being linked”.

Those who do not win such awards and lead fairly invisible lives would of course be pulled up for "whining" about debunking the Islam and terror link.

In these times only a 'role-playing' model is what passes for a role model.

(Farzana Versey is the author of the recently-released book A Journey Interrupted: Being Indian in Pakistan, HarperCollins, India. She can be reached at

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